By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 13, 2007
PHOENIX, Aug. 12 -- Nationwide, the final score Sunday from Chase Field -- Washington Nationals 7, Arizona Diamondbacks 6 -- and the manner in which it transpired will be notable because the Diamondbacks are baseball's hottest team, they lead the National League West and the loss allowed the San Diego Padres to pull a game closer in what promises to be a stirring race over the final seven weeks of the season.
But the men who put on suits and packed their bags in the visitors' clubhouse emphatically believe that the comeback win -- a game in which they trailed by four runs in the eighth, one that featured game-turning home runs from left fielder Ryan Church and rookie catcher Jesus Flores -- says as much about the Nationals as it does about anyone else.
"It's been normal for us," Manager Manny Acta said. "These guys don't give up. They're going to give me everything they've got every day, and sometimes we do these things."
More often, in fact, than almost anyone would have expected at the beginning of the year. The Nationals were on the verge of being swept by the Diamondbacks -- who had won an astonishing 17 times in their previous 20 games -- because Arizona right-hander Micah Owings had allowed only one hit through six innings and because lefty Mike Bacsik had his worst outing for Washington, a four-inning stint in which he was drilled for five runs.
But even after the Nationals wasted a seventh-inning opportunity in which they drove Owings from the game -- one in which pinch hitter Brian Schneider bounced into a double play with the bases loaded and one out -- they decided to extend their road trip by battling, rather than racing to the bus and the flight home by rolling over.
"It shows we don't give up till the last out," Church said.
Washington entered the eighth trailing 5-1. But with one out and a man on first, third baseman Ryan Zimmerman -- who had a rough road trip, hitting just .143 in the seven games after he was named the NL's co-player of the week -- drilled a pitch from reliever Tony Peña just to the right of center field. The ball missed being a homer by a couple of feet, and Zimmerman ended up with an RBI triple.
Right fielder Austin Kearns followed with a single that scored Zimmerman to make it 5-3. No big deal. The Diamondbacks had led 55 times after seven innings and won 52 of those games thanks largely to a reliable bullpen. Manager Bob Melvin then made the sensible move, calling in lefty Doug Slaten -- holding left-handed hitters to a .238 average this season -- to face the left-handed Church.
"Everybody knows that he's been having a lot of problems against lefties," Acta said of Church.
Indeed, in his previous 18 at-bats against left-handers, Church had but one hit, and he was hitting .222 against them overall. Slaten hadn't allowed a homer to a left-handed hitter all year. With a man on first and a two-run lead, the odds favored Slaten.
But Slaten made a mistake. He fell behind Church 3-1, and that gave the Nationals' left fielder a chance.
"I finally was able to get in a good hitter's count," Church said.
Translation: He could sit on a fastball. "He could've thrown curveball," Church said, "and I could've been swinging way out in front of it. I just wanted the fastball, and I got it."
He didn't miss it. He crushed it to right field for the two-run homer that tied the score at five.
That, though, was just the first comeback. Reliever Jon Rauch allowed leadoff singles in the eighth to Justin Upton and Mark Reynolds, and Stephen Drew gave the Diamondbacks the lead with a sacrifice fly. That gave Arizona the chance to bring in all-star closer Jose Valverde, the main reason why the Diamondbacks had led 61 times after eight innings and won 59 of them.
Flores was the first man to hit against the right-hander, and he fell behind 0-2. He is only 22, and by all rights should be in the minor leagues. Yet he was 2 for 3 already when he stepped to the plate. Being in that 0-2 hole bothered him not at all.
"He's not intimidated," Acta said. "That's a fact. He has played for us with a confidence that he belongs up here, regardless of where he has come from."
With that, he got in front of a cut fastball from Valverde and flipped it over the left field fence. When it landed, his third homer of the year, he pumped both his fists rounding first, and the Nationals in the dugout raised their hands above their heads.
"Good for me," Flores said, "and good for the team."
The team then tapped one more unlikely source. Reserve Robert Fick -- inserted in a double-switch in the eighth and hitting just .194 with five extra-base hits all year -- launched his first triple in two years to right-center. Felipe Lopez followed with a sacrifice fly, and when Chad Cordero overcame a two-out walk in the ninth for his 26th save, a road trip that might have seem squandered was suddenly palatable.
"It would have been a long flight," Rauch said, "if we would have lost that game."
But somehow -- with Church, with Flores, with Fick -- they won it, a last-place team beating a first-place one, and the flight home must have seemed shorter by hours.